In the first half of the nineteenth century some of the world’s greatest landscape painters came to the White Mountains. Some of them would be the nucleus of the Hudson River School of painters and none was more significant than New York-based Thomas Cole. He was one of the first who saw these great peaks as a place to retreat to where an ever-changing world couldn’t reach as easily and saw the need to protect it.
One of my favorite Cole quotes states “Many a mountain stream and rock has its legend, worthy of the poet’s pen or the painter’s pencil.”
During the first few years of our hiking up here, starting a decade ago, I wouldn’t have appreciated Cole’s words as much. I was more intent on getting to the top of each peak to celebrate the view, but also our accomplishment. You could say my appreciation for this region was tarnished by my ego that wanted to go faster, farther, and do more, more, more.
But then something happened and things changed. I somehow came to the conclusion during all my hurry to collect personal achievement that I’d lost touch with how much I was missing along the way to prove how strong and fast and accomplished I was. During our first visits up here, when Atticus led me along twisting paths and across rocky streams, there was a buzz of excitement whenever we entered the woods. That’s all it took, to leave one world and enter another. There was an innocence found along the trails. Oh, how I loved leaving a busier Massachusetts’ life behind to get “lost” in the woods. It almost felt like I was playing hooky. As the world I knew rushed ever onward back home, Atticus and I were sitting by streams, enjoying the breeze and the shade of the forest, and the way the sun glistened through the green canopy to create the illusion of diamonds and jewels in the flowing water.
Back in Newburyport, back running my newspaper after a few days up here, I’d often mentally return to those little breaks by the streams, or those moments when I’d stop pushing through the woods and just breathe in the clean air as the trees towered around us and I felt small but also like I belonged as Mother Nature wrapped her arms around me.
For the past seven years I’ve rejected the mania I was caught up in and decided to enjoy the mountains more for what they meant to me personally, instead of trying to keep up with others who were also into achieving something. And as soon as I let go of the ego in my hiking, I learned to appreciate each walk in the woods, whether it was twenty minutes or twenty miles.
Now, here we are several years later and Atticus is thirteen. He’s still quite active, but he’s retired from his hiking days, for the most part. There are still mornings when the air is cool and fresh and inviting when he decides he still wants to go “up,” and so we do. But I never expect it anymore. This has allowed me to fully appreciate what Thomas Cole said about “many a mountain stream or rock…”
These days I find myself marveling at what nature has provided. Now, instead of hurrying to the next checkpoint, we can sit for an hour in a woodsy valley watching red squirrels and their twitching tails, listening to the industrious woodpeckers (who pay no attention to us whatsoever), holding the tiniest toad in the palm of my hand for closer study, or simply noticing the leaves twist and dance in the wind.
It’s funny, isn’t it? No matter how much we dream of summer in the coldest days of the winter, when it arrives there is never a disappointment. It’s always as good as we imagined it. The seasons don’t disappoint. Nature never fails to live up to its promise. Unlike the world we are creating, things are come better than advertised in the natural world. That’s the way it was with my Newburyport daydreams, too. No matter how perfect I saw things to be up here, the reality exceeded the fantasy.
This morning a young bear was busying himself with something under a tree. He had no idea we were within twenty feet of him watching his rump twist and turn while he head was down below at the trunk. When he finally sensed us, he turned around with a look of shock and started to run off. Perhaps it was because Atticus and I were sitting, and not chasing him, or something else altogether, but after five quick steps, the bear looked over his shoulder and stopped as well. He watched us, always ready to run, but he never did. And we sat taking him in, taking in everything around him. He would eventually move on, but at no hurry and as he lingered, we couldn’t get enough of him.
These are the things I never did see before. I think we’d be moving so quickly forward that the animals stayed hidden because of all of our noise and rambunctiousness.
The other day I heard from a woman who was new to hiking. She wanted to know if I had any advice for a novice. I told her to do her own thing and not get caught up in lists or what everyone else is doing. “Do what makes you happy. Take the gifts the mountains are offering you specifically and appreciate them.” Then I shared the Thomas Cole quote with her.
The mountaintops are very grand, but the rocks and streams along the way, they are pretty special too.